Anyone who has recently tried to buy a second-hand van will know that they have become difficult to find at sensible money – so much so, in fact, that a leading British broadsheet recently felt moved to report on the boom in sales, citing one of the major ‘drivers’ being the increase in people turning to courier work after being laid-off from their previous jobs due to the economic downturn caused by Coronavirus.
But vans are not only enjoying a surge in popularity among those who want to put them to work – they are also having their day in the sun as versatile recreational vehicles in the form of camper conversions that enable couples and small families to make the most of enforced ‘staycations’ or to roam far and wide on roads less travelled without the constraints, expense and limitations caused by relying on more conventional accommodation.
It’s fair to say that owning a decent-sized van really does open-up a whole new world of adventure. I can vouch for that, having just returned from a three-week odyssey to Greece in a 15-year-old Vauxhall Vivaro with 185,000 miles on the clock that I bought for £2,000 only a few days before departure.
Against all odds, it performed faultlessly throughout the 2,600-mile round trip and I’m now completely, ridiculously besotted with the thing having had my eyes opened to the joys of being able to pull-over at an idyllic spot, bed down in the back and wake to spectacular scenery – before firing-up my trusty Kelly Kettle to make my morning coffee.
The trip did, however, make me realise just how far camper vans have come since the days of the VW Type 2 or the cumbersome and ugly plastic-bodied conversions carried out on early Ford Transit vans and the like during the 1970s and ’80s.
The fact is, travelling by camper is no longer regarded as an activity reserved for those who can’t afford to stay in a hotel. Instead, it has become the preferred choice of many adventure-seeking, broad-minded types who not only love the freedom a trusty van can provide, but the potential levels of comfort available from the many high-end models.
But if you’re not convinced, take a look at these luxury homes-on-wheels. You may never want to check-in to a hotel again………
Ford Transit Custom Nugget
The Ford Transit Custom Nugget comes with an outdoor shower
This official conversion of the Ford Transit by German firm Westfalia turns the celebrated workhorse into a thoroughbred home-from-home. Only recently made available in right-hand-drive form for the UK market, the Nugget offers accommodation for four, a well-equipped kitchenette with a twin-burner cooker, a steel sink unit and a 40-litre fridge.
A tilting roof conceals a fold-out double bed, with the seating in the living area below converting into a second double. A practical ‘wood effect’ floor makes the interior easy to keep clean, and the living/dining space features a table with seating for five. Twin 42-litre tanks take care of the water supply, and there’s even an outdoor shower fitted in the back of the van. A new, long-wheelbase Nugget is due to go on sale at the end of the year. The short-wheelbase starts at £59,608.
Volkswagen Grand California 600/680
Volkswagen Grand California 680, complete with a wet room
VW can fairly lay claim to having created a cult classic with its original Type 2 camper vans of the 1950s, and its modern Transporter ‘T6’ models are continuing the tradition as one of the most popular ‘explorer’ vehicles on the market, both in professionally-converted and home-built form.
But the Grand California takes the theme to a whole new level, being based on the marque’s considerably larger Crafter van – although at six metres long and 2.9 metres high, it remains manageable to handle and is easily adapted to by anyone used to a large car. An optional ‘over cab’ bed offers a sleeping area for two children and there’s an adult-sized, longitudinal double for adults on the ‘ground floor’. A comprehensively-equipped kitchen includes extendable worktop panels and extensive storage – and the Crafter’s extra size means there’s even space for a wet room. Six USB charging sockets and four domestic plug sockets combine with on-board Wi-Fi to keep everyone connected, and an air and water-based heating system should ensure a cosy night. From £71,652.
Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo
The Marco Polo boasts seats that convert electrically into a double bed.
Just to reinforce the message that the camper-converted version of its V-Class van is designed specifically for adventure, Mercedes-Benz named it after the famous Venetian explorer who travelled the Silk Road way back in the 13th century.
Had he made the trip in his namesake van, his journey would undoubtedly have been more comfortable – the V-Class offers seats for four, with the front pair rotating to create a lounge set-up and the sliding rears folding down electrically to create a double bed. There’s another bed in the electric ‘pop top’ roof – complete with sprung base – and the impressive kitchen (which even has slide-out, soft-close drawers) is of exceptional quality and ought to inspire some gourmet creations.
As with most camper vans, the Marco Polo can be hooked-up to a mains electricity socket – and, typically of a Mercedes-Benz, it effortlessly eats up the miles. From £53,180.
Iglhaut Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
The ideal off-roader
To an increasingly large number of people, a camper van is not simply a vehicle to sleep in at an official site – it’s a means of seeking-out some of the most remote and inaccessible places possible.
German firm Iglhaut takes standard Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans and turns them into the ultimate adventure vehicles with state-of-the-art four-wheel drive systems featuring low and high ratio gearboxes and triple differential locks. Tyres of up to 37 inches in diameter take rocks in their stride, centrifugal snorkels scoff in the face of raging rivers and 47.5 gallon fuel tanks make it possible to head deep into the wilderness – and to get back again.
Although originally set-up to serve a commercial market, Iglhaut increasingly creates vehicles for travellers looking to visit places where few other human beings have ever been. And the Sprinter’s huge carrying capacity means vans can be turned into fully-equipped homes on wheels. Iglhaut conversions start at around £40,000 (plus the cost of the van) and, as an official Mercedes-Benz partner, the van’s official warranty remains valid. iglhault-allrad.de
Man TGS Expedition Truck
True adventurers should opt for a purpose built expedition truck – expeditiontrucks.com
If you’re really serious about adventure travel, an off-the-shelf Ford, VW or Mercedes-Benz might not be of much use to you – and even an Iglhaut could have its shortcomings. In which case, you’ll need a purpose-built expedition truck, the sort of vehicle which it would be possible to live in and out of for months at a time.
A popular base for such a truck is the mighty, German-built MAN TGS, which can be had in four-wheel-drive or even six-wheel-drive form. With a mighty, 480 horsepower engine, triple differential locks and low and high ratio gearboxes, one of these will cross virtually any surface that’s strong enough to take its 16-ton weight – and they are so large that they often incorporate an on-board garage for the carrying of satellite vehicles, such as quads, motorcycles or boats.
Most are built to order, often using 20-foot living units supplied by military equipment manufacturer Rheinmetall AG. As a result, prices vary considerably – but don’t expect to get away with less than a substantial six-figure sum. A good source of used examples is the website expedition-trucks.com
Volkswagen Caddy Mini-Camper
Artist’s sketch of the new mini camper
Camper vans are all about versatility and the intelligent use of space – and they don’t come much smarter than VW’s just-launched Mini-camper based on its Caddy model. The firm has been making such ‘micro’ campers since 2005, although only now is it publicising their existence widely as vehicle-based adventure travel become more popular.
The ‘USP’ of the Mini-camper lies in the fact that all of its fittings are removable, meaning it can be used as a conventional van when required. As well as holding a double bed, it also carries a camping table and chairs which are neatly stowed in carry bags that double-up as privacy screens to cover the windows – although a panoramic glass roof ensures occupants can enjoy the experience of sleeping under the stars to the full. Keep an eye on volkswagen-vans.co.uk to see if and when the Mini-camper, tipped to cost around £20,000, is coming to these shores….